DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — “Barbie” is set to open in the Middle East on Thursday, but moves by Kuwait and Lebanon to ban the film for allegedly threatening conservative values have raised questions about its wide release.
The film centered around the anatomically improbable American dolls contains no overt sexuality or references to LGBTQ+ rights. But it appears to have drawn criticism due to its sheer extravagance and broad message of inclusion and gender equality in a region where homosexuality is widely viewed as taboo.
Kuwait announced its ban on Wednesday night, saying the film promotes “ideas and beliefs that are alien to Kuwaiti society and public order,” without elaborating, according to a statement carried by the state-run KUNA news agency.
In Lebanon, Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada said the film was found to “contradict the values of faith and morality” and “promote homosexuality and sexual transformation.” His request to ban the film was sent to Lebanon’s General Security agency, which reports to the Interior Ministry and traditionally handles censorship decisions.
The move sparked an uproar in Lebanon, long an island of relative tolerance for gay men and lesbians. The LGBTQ+ community there has been under increasing pressure in recent years, as powerful far-right Islamist and Christian groups have gained influence amid a severe economic crisis.
Throughout the Middle East, many Muslims, Christians, and Jews consider same-sex relationships to be sinful. In some parts of the Arab world, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been arrested and sentenced to prison.
In Iraq, regulators have banned the media from using the word “homosexuality,” instead directing it to be referred to as “sexual deviance.” A similar order issued by the country’s education minister banned the word from universities.
On Thursday, Malaysia’s Muslim majority banned all Swatch products containing LGBTQ+ elementsincluding watches, wrappers and boxes, with possession punishable by up to three years in prison.
The all-star cast of “Barbie” includes Kate McKinnon, who is gay, and transgender actor Hari Nef. Many in the LGBTQ+ community have embraced the film, even as some have criticized it for pushing a heteronormative narrative.
The Warner Bros. film has raised over $1 billion in less than a month from its opening in other markets. Directed and produced by Margot Robbie, directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig, the film crossed $400 million domestically and $500 million internationally faster than any other film at the studio, including the Harry Potter films.
It is scheduled to open in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Thursday night.
Both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have invested billions of dollars in sports, entertainment and tourism in recent years. But like much of the rest of the Middle East, they criminalize homosexuality and view LGBTQ+ advocacy as a threat to their societies that must be quashed.
The film’s release in the region was initially planned for August 31, but was brought up recently, indicating that censorship issues had been resolved. Films are often delayed for release in the region to give production companies time to censor them or have them reviewed by committees.
Vietnam prohibited distribution from “Barbie” last month because it includes a view of a map showing disputed Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Another summer blockbuster, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” was abruptly pulled from the movie listings across the Middle East in June, apparently for a scene in which a transgender sign appears briefly in the background.
That film was not shown in Lebanon, but there was no official comment on the ban and the decision was widely blamed on regional distributors not picking it up.
Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which opened last year and features a lesbian couple, was shown in Lebanon despite being banned in much of the Arab world. The 2021 film “Eternals”, which featured the first gay kiss in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was censored but was still shown in Lebanon, while it faced outright bans in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Warner Bros. did not respond to requests for comment on whether or not the film was censored for release in the region.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.